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'Mandela, I see as no one special anymore'
by Ms TKG

The author maintains a web site ( ) devoted to exploring Taiwan & Mainland politics. Comments may be sent in care of Ms TKG to

It is difficult for me to have any special respect for Nelson Mandela and the ANC anymore. This stems from the change in South Africa's diplomatic relations with "China," as it recently cut formal ties with the Republic of China (a.k.a Taiwan) and established ones with the People's Republic of China.

It is not establishing diplomatic relations with mainland China that makes me feel this way, but the way it was done and what it represents in comparison to Mandela's previous statements and what I used to consider his moral bearing.

I remember when Mandela was released from prison and made his US fund raising tour. It was quite a joyous event. I went to the Oakland Coliseum to see him and hear him talk. It was unbelievable that something this right and just could happen in our lifetime. And in subsequent years when he became President of South Africa he seemed like a symbol of hope for freedom around the world.

To me it seemed that, given the circumstances of his life, Mandela had risen to a high stature precisely for his moral bearing and integrity that was above virtually all other world leaders. Now I see him as just another politician and that makes me sad.

Mandela was living up to his stature in addressing the issue of "Taiwan vs. China." Few governments have been willing to address it at any level. Mandela said that it would be immoral to simply drop ties with Taiwan in favor of larger China. He also said that it was the problem of the Chinese, not South Africans, to work out their differences. In other words he would rather not choose between either the mainland or Taiwan, saying that there should be no problem in maintaining relations with both countries.

These were exactly the sort of progressive and realistic statements that leaders make. I have no problem with diplomatic ties being fostered with the PRC per se, but dislike the way by which one is dropped for the other. Initially I thought that the ANC and Mandela would quickly switch to the PRC given the Marxist influence in the ANC, but when they did not I was impressed by their seeming commitment to freedom and integrity. But at the same time there may have been inter-African politics at play here in that the Chinese Communist Party supported an ANC rival, the Pan African Congress, more than the ANC. During Lee Teng Hui's tenure the ROC began to support the ANC.

No leader has been willing to stand up and address the Chinese situation by saying, "This is enough, let's work out something where one side does not need to hurt themselves here to help themselves there." It is dumb that ties need to be strained between South Africa and Taiwan or South Africa and PRC (or the US and PRC/ROC for that matter) over such a thing. And Mandela seemed to be the leader who did address this. But he and the ANC have completely folded and acted like any other regime.

Mandela has made some statements which betray his commitment to amoral mediocrity, a kind shared by virtually all other "leaders." He did say a year or so ago that South Africa would not break with the ROC. He even said it would be immoral for his country to do so. But a 30 December article from Reuters quotes Mandela exacting a smarmy political line along the sentiment of: 'But I never regarded that statement would be used for the purpose of saying that diplomatic relations between the Republic of South Africa and Taiwan would never be reviewed.' That sounds like typical double talk.

Worst of all is that I expected Mandela to respect the principles for what he and others had fought and were imprisoned. Yet, I have to agree with what a commentator said, "It is ironic that democratic South Africa has dropped democratic Taiwan for a totalitarian China which still imprisons political dissenters." Given Mandela's very real commitment to freedom and democracy I would have thought that progress made in Taiwan toward these goals would have made them kindred spirits and that Mandela would have respected the similar strides made in Taiwan that he and the ANC and other groups made in South Africa. In many ways the two success stories of the 80's and 90's are the democratization of Taiwan and South Africa, two formally totalitarian states.

Now, Mandela embraces totalitarian PRC which treats its freedom fighters the same way that Mandela was treated in South Africa. And in the PRC the "dissenters" are far tamer than Mandela was. Mandela was trying to overthrow the government by peaceful or violent means. Mainland China "dissenters" today get jail time simply for writing open letters criticizing their government's policies and calling for reform, not any sort of overthrow of the whole government. I would have thought that such actions on the part of a totalitarian mainland government would have resonated with Mandela, given his own struggle against Apartheid. Both government's use the same reasoning: the need for stability.

Now, Mandela speaks about the PRC's totalitarian regime in terms of 'not interfering in its domestic affairs.' When I read this I wonder why in the world did I go to anti-Apartheid protests to support the ANC and other groups when I was an undergraduate. Why did people call on the Regents for divestiture in South Africa and camp out for weeks until the Regents agreed? The anti-Apartheid protests of the 80's and the support for the ANC by Americans were clearly examples of 'interference' in another country's domestic affairs. Is Mandela now saying we were wrong to have supported his cause because those were the domestic affairs of another country?

Is Mandela familiar with Yu Zou of Shenzhen? He was a democracy activist in the 1989 protests and was later jailed for putting up posters that called for a re-evaluation of the 1989 movement. He was released in 1994 and kept under constant surveillance. Last month on December 19, 32 year old Yu was killed while with the police. His death wasn't announced until the 24th. The police said he was driving his car, with a policeman in the passenger seat, when another car crashed into him and he died. This sounds like Stephen Biko all over again. Has Mandela forgotten so quickly?

I am not trying to portray Mandela as some sort of "evil guy" running an "evil regime." I understand the reasoning when he makes statements like this: "The People's Republic of China is one of the most populous states in the world, a member of the United Nations, a permanent member of the Security Council. It is in the interests of South Africa to have relations with such a country."

Those are pragmatic reasons. But I would have hoped Mandela would have kept the rights of freedom fighters in Taiwan and China in mind and have stuck to his guns on recognizing both the ROC and the PRC. I think that the US also missed an opportunity to have supported such a path toward normalizing relations with all of China, rather than having to join in the fray and choose a side in this Chinese dispute. Mandela and other "leaders" passed over an opportunity to be true leaders, working for a freer and more peaceful world.

Mandela, I see as no one special anymore.

China Informed

a news service focused on China, Taiwan and Hong Kong
©1997 Matthew Sinclair-Day
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